Two years ago, Jason Reitman beautifully captured the anxieties and absurdities of corporate downsizing in his bittersweet comedy Up in the Air. John Wells’s new drama, The Company Men, covers the same stomach-churning terrain in a more sombre and predictable fashion.
The Company Men covers the same stomach-churning terrain as Up In the Air, but in a more sombre and predictable fashion.
The movie’s focus is on the white-collar victims of the recent economic collapse — the ones with six-figure incomes, big houses, Porsches and golf club memberships. I know — cry me a river, right? But to be fair, sudden job loss can be traumatic at any level of the pay scale, and often, the well-heeled don’t have much more of a financial safety net than the poor. Writer-director Wells treats his company men with compassion and effectively captures the emotional toll of their abrupt changes in fortune.
His main character is Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck), a cocky 37-year-old sales executive with a Boston-based transportation conglomerate. When he’s unceremoniously turfed in the struggling company’s latest round of job cuts, Bobby’s immediate response is denial. He keeps driving that Porsche, playing golf and dressing for the office. Even as his severance pay — 12 weeks for 12 years of service — rapidly dwindles away, he turns a deaf ear to his pragmatic wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), who insists they retrench and put their suburban home on the market.
He also keeps up his adversarial relationship with his blue-collar brother-in-law, Jack (Kevin Costner), a carpenter who offers him work. You don’t need to have seen the trailer to know that, sooner or later, Bobby’s going to have to swallow his stubborn pride and start hanging drywall.
Meanwhile, back at the office, the axe continues to swing. Lifetime employee Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper), who’s pushing 60 and has two kids in college, is desperately clutching at his job. His only hope of being spared lies in old buddy Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones), vice-president and co-founder of the company. But McClary’s own position is growing tenuous as he continues to cross swords with his partner, CEO Jim Salinger (Greg T. Nelson), over the layoffs.
The Company Men covers experiences that are all too familiar to people in the corporate world today. Wells, a seasoned television writer (ER, The West Wing), gets the details right, from those sad little cardboard boxes in which laid-off employees pack their belongings to the outplacement counsellors with their asinine pep talks. I was particularly struck by a scene where Nelson’s CEO smugly tours the building site of his company’s luxurious new headquarters. It reminded me of the time that, as a reporter, I was given a tour of a brand new facility for a corporation that had just made devastating cuts to its workforce. When I asked how they justified building at a time when they were doing massive layoffs, I was cheerfully told that the facility was "part of a different budget."
Wells deserves kudos for not making Bobby and Phil easy men to like. Affleck’s character is arrogant and angry, a privileged hotshot just begging to be humbled. But Affleck also plays him as a sensitive man whose hurt is evident in his eyes. To lift a line from Bob Dylan, Bobby often looks as though he’s on the verge of either tears of rage or tears of grief.
We know, though, that Bobby will eventually land on his feet. Phil is another story. When he started with the company’s original shipbuilding operation, he was a wiry young welder who hung fearlessly from breakneck heights. But time and a desk job have reduced him to a nervous coward, terrified of a pink slip. And he has reason to be scared — an aging man with a greying pompadour whose desperation reeks like bad aftershave, he’s hardly an employment agency’s dream. It’s a role steeped in pathos in the great Willy Loman-Shelley Levene tradition, but the ever-superb Cooper skilfully underplays it.
Gene McClary is the least convincing of the three characters, which is not the fault of the veteran Tommy Lee Jones, but of Wells’s writing and directing. Gene is that seeming rarity — an upper-level executive who talks about ethics, cares about people and is uncomfortable with his and Salinger’s exorbitant salaries. Heck, he even believes in labour unions. He seems too good to be true.
Wells must realize that. He tries to make him less virtuous and more complex by putting him in an awkward extramarital affair with the company’s designated hatchet woman, Sally Wilcox (Maria Bello). But their relationship and, indeed, Bello’s character, remains murky. If she and Gene were meant to have any heated bedroom conversations about the downsizing, those must’ve ended up on the editing room floor.
The Company Men is well-acted, well-shot (by the great Roger Deakins, subtly tracing Boston’s changing seasons) and well-intentioned. Its parting suggestion that hope for America lies in a humane, back-to-basics approach to business is attractive, if simplistic. But the movie feels like a latecomer to the table.
The unemployed Bobby’s reassessment of his values is just a faint echo of the more poignant and profound thoughts about life and work swirling through Up in the Air. And the cold-hearted machinations of big business were analyzed with more insight (and wit) by the 2003 Canadian documentary The Corporation. Those were also original films. The Company Men, with its Hollywood sentimentality and uplifting conclusion, is business as usual.
The Company Men opens in Montreal and Toronto on Jan. 21 and in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver on Jan. 28.
Martin Morrow is a writer based in Toronto.